Liliian Faderman's book, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America - A History, examines the contribution of American women we would now identify as lesbians to various areas of endeavour, including the women's suffrage movement, the settlement house movement, the establishment of higher education institutions for women, and the entry of women into the professions.
It is difficult to look back into the past and determine with absolute certainty the sexual lives of many of the women Faderman describes as lesbians. Certainly there is a long history of women forming "passionate friendships" and "Boston marriages," as such intensely intimate emotional and domestic relationships were variously called, and it is only reasonable to assume that many of the women in such relationships were romantically and sexually involved as well. But this style of intense friendship was also found between women who married and lived traditional heterosexual lives, and it is quite conceivable that unmarried heterosexual women would seek friendship and convenience in non-sexual domestic arrangements. However, Faderman chooses to assume that most if not all the unmarried women in these various movements, and particularly those who formed households with other women, were what we today would call lesbians.
In this book, Faderman tells the stories of some of the American women she identifies as lesbians who were involved in these significant areas of American political and social action. She proposes the theory that disproportionate numbers of lesbians were leaders and key supporters of these movements because they were free of the obligations of heterosexual marriage - taking care of husband, home, children - and instead had the opportunity to form relationships with women who were either supportive of them, or who actively worked beside them. She further argues that without the leadership and example of lesbians, who needed the greater freedom demanded by the suffragettes in order to support themselves without the help of men, heterosexual women alone could not have won, or held onto, the freedoms gained by the movement.
One thing I find myself wondering about in reading Faderman's book is whether this heightened presence of lesbians in social activism in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a universal phenomenon or something peculiar to American life. I'm not aware of any similar research that has been done, say, in Canada or Britain, but I do know that where Faderman can name scores of unmarried women leaders in the American suffrage movement, I can only think of a few Canadian women suffragists who remained unmarried (Agnes MacPhail being one such) and the only out lesbian who comes to mind is Charlotte Whitton. However, that could well be a result of a lack of research on this point.
In recounting this narrative of the pre-eminent role played by lesbians in the advancement of women's rights, Faderman also looks at changes over time in attitudes toward and acceptance of "manly" women and intimate relationships between women. She notes that before the work of theorists such as Freud and Kraft-Ebbling, such relationships were not stigmatised, and she paints a picture of whole communities of high-status, activist lesbians acknowledging their relationships within the communities, vacationing together, visiting each other as couples, providing emotional support when separation or death left one of their number in distress.
However, Faderman argues, as psychological theories of inversion and sexual pathology became widely known and adopted, disapproval grew and women involved in relationships with other women began to internalize feelings of being psychologically lacking. Many engaged in self-denial that they were lesbians like those described in medical literature, or made attempts to conceal their relationships from the public eye.
This growing awareness and stigmatisation of lesbians, "inverts" and "manly women" provoked fears among high-status males that there would be no women left to raise their children and keep their houses: "but who will bake the pies?" As well, penchant for eugenics that was common in upper-class, predominantly white circles in the early 20th century led to alarms over the higher marriage and birth rates among uneducated, black and immigrant women, raising fears of "race suicide" among middle and upperclass educated white women. Psychiatric theory that posited heterosexuality and conspicuous femininity as the natural expression of psychological health and maturity led to the perception of the educated, single or working woman as unnatural, unhealthy and immature. These developments, Faderman suggests, had the dual effect of limiting the influence of lesbian leaders and pioneers in the professions, and discouraging heterosexual women from even considering any future other than marriage.
Thus, after almost a century of strong female leadership (often by lesbians) in suffrage, labour, social welfare and women's education movements, the 1920s and 1930s saw a decline in women in positions of power and authority in these areas. Further, higher education for women was redefined, returning to the concept of educating women to be wives and mothers, not professionals.
Women steadily lost ground in the professions. By the 1940s, as a statistician for the U.S. Women's Bureau observed, more than three quarters of the women who were listed in the census of occupations under "Professional" were in the lower-prestige, lower-salaried jobs of teachers and nurses. "The traditional learned professions of law, medicine, and theology," the statistician wrote in 1947, "accounted for almost 24 percent of the men grouped as professional and semi-professional workers, but the proportion of women in these fields was relatively so insignificant (all of them together less than 1 percent)" that she could not show them separately in her statistical summary.
It is my strong feeling that Faderman, whose other work on the history of women who chose to have intimate emotional and romantic (and in some cases certainly sexual) relationships with other women I have enjoyed and admired, overstates her case in this book.
Again and again, Faderman suggests that only unmarried women could possibly have done the kind of pioneering work in the suffrage movement and in the professions that the women she writes about did, and that most of those women who resisted the "heterosexual imperative" of marriage must have been lesbians. Setting aside the fact that for most of this period, there was no true sense of sexual identity as there is today, this argument is gainsaid from the start by Faderman's own inclusion of statistics that show that significant percentages (though rarely if ever majorities) of women in the suffrage movement and in the professions were married to men.
Further, Faderman neglects the fact that even in the mid-1800s, there were men who embraced the thought of women in the professions, and women in political life. Not many, but enough that some married women might well have had the active support of their male partners. Others might have been given grudging permission - "I don't care what you do as long as supper's on the table on time every day." Married upper and upper-middle class women, if they were committed to a movement or a career, could well have found the time to devote themselves outside of the house by relying on paid labour to care for house and children. And, just as they did in England, married working class women could surely have made the sacrifices necessary for a cause they believed in. It's not just a black and white choice between marrying and being a housewife with no time or energy to study and work, or turning one's back on all heterosexual expression and becoming a lesbian.
I certainly do not dispute that in general, women who were unmarried for whatever reason would have had fewer demands on their time than most married women, and further that they would have been aware of the need to find ways to support themselves - but it is undeniable that some women did take up the cause of suffrage, or engage in the professions, while married to men, and even while having children.
Nor do I dispute the idea that a significant proportion of the unmarried women who were active in these areas were what we might now classify as lesbian or bisexual - but it is not appropriate to identify as lesbians all unmarried women who found women to share their work and homes and aspirations and emotional lives with. Ours has always been a homosocial society - women and men, married or unmarried, have largely found emotional, intellectual and social satisfaction in the company of members of their own sex. It's cheaper and more pleasant to live with someone, and many people do so for long periods of time without being sexually involved.
Faderman further suggests, in an uncomfortably patronising fashion, that heterosexual women would not have entered the professions at all if lesbians had not taken the responsibility for "elevating" all women to the consciousness they had achieved.
Lesbian professional women continued to recognize what was at stake if they could not elevate the status of women. However, they lived in a very different world from that of heterosexual women, who generally did not have the same motives to spur them in the arduous struggles toward a profession.
Indeed, by Faderman's account, it was not until the mid-60s, with the beginning of second wave feminism in response to a growing climate of support for civil rights, that heterosexual women were finally able to follow their lesbian sisters out of the home and into the world.
By making gender discrimination illegal, the 1964 Civil Rights Act helped to herald a new mood with regard to women. Thus the space created many decades earlier by the lesbian pioneers—where women might assume what Stearn scoffingly called "active role[s] in outside affairs"—could finally begin to be inhabited by a broad spectrum of American women.
Faderman concludes the book with a summary of the advances made by women since 1964 in politics, the professions, and in challenging a sexist society. While she acknowledges that these advances have been accomplished by lesbians and heterosexual women working side by side, she repeats the argument that it was lesbians - and, it seems, only lesbians - who made it possible.
But over the past two decades, American women have resumed the progress that was put on hold for a half-century, taking up where the lesbian pioneers left off. The ambitions of the pioneers have spread to large numbers of heterosexual women.
Faderman ends with several comments on reclaiming lesbian history and establishing lesbian heroes and role models that I heartily agree with. The "disappearing" of queer people of all kinds and their contributions to the panorama of human history is a trend that must be reversed, and Faderman has done much solid work to bring this about. Certainly, some of the most enjoyable passages in this book are the stories of women who were almost certainly lesbians whose accomplishments were significant and profound. However, in highlighting the undeniable influence of these women on the long struggle for women's liberation, it seems to me that Faderman has constructed a narrative of bold lesbian pioneers and easily cowed and manipulated heterosexual women that almost reverses the situation, creating an argument that, if followed to its logical conclusions, "disappears" the heterosexual women who also fought for women's freedoms.
So... Lesbians in the forefront of the struggle (alongside married and unmarried heterosexual women)? Of course. All women in the struggle as lesbians? Not bloody likely. Lesbians having an easier time finding energy and emotional support for the struggle? Quite possible. All other women just giving up because the demands from husband and family were too great? Demonstrably untrue and rather insulting to those married heterosexual and bisexual women who were also part of the struggle. Focus on the lives and accomplishments of women-identified women who made history? Go for it, sister. Add in an argument that women-identified women were the only leaders and heterosexual women couldn't have achieved anything without their pioneering leadership? Not cool.